~Jack Raymond Enslow, Jr. ~ Born 8/31/1940, Chicago, Illinois, Marine, Shopkeeper, Machinist, Fisherman, Feeder of Feral Cats~
Note: I went to find Jack yesterday and remind him about our appointment with the VA Monday at 3:30 and how a program they had would pay his lot rent.
I sat with Jack over 2 hours yesterday explaining how his life was about to change with the little trailer and a bike with a cart, that so many of you have so generously contributed to. I asked him how it all started. I asked him how he ended up under the Tavernier Bridge for 18 years.
(With a little more help from you, the Humans of the Keys, Jack can leave the bridge this week.
As his story unfolded, the Jack we see today slipped away, and in his place was a young Marine, honorably discharged, following his dream to be a commercial fisherman...in the Florida Keys. This is Jack's story in his own words.
" I don't have any family left, but after the Marine Corp, my Dad was still alive and I helped in with his business on the coast in South Florida. He and my mother had left Chicago and opened a kind of junk business. We had a store front and everything. I also worked on boats during this time and did some fishing.
My Dad died and the business dried up and then my Mom was gone. There was no money. My Dad had brought me to the Florida Keys for the first time 59 years ago. I never forgot all the fish houses and commercial boats that were everywhere back then.
Then I was back down here to ride on the Spiegel Grove when I was still a Marine and things were heating up in Russia and the President formed this huge flotilla of Navy vessels to let Kruschev know we would fight if necessary. Navy vessels are used to transport Marines and I was one of those Marines. It was then that I received my first back injury, slipping off a ladder on the Spiegel Grove. But, I just lived with the pain and went on. The Spiegel Grove as you probably know is the largest vessel ever sank on purpose to form a reef. It is sunk right down here.
Anyway, when everything went bad, I decided to walk and hitch to Key West and see if I could get a start up boat and be a commercial fisherman. I thought I could work for a boat. I got down there and soon realized that most of the fish houses were gone and condos and hotels and bars were about all that was down there. Stock Island still had a ton of lobster boats and such but they were owned by Cubans and I couldn't get hired on or anything. I was shocked that the fish houses were gone so I couldn't get a boat from one of them and start fishing. That had been my plan.
So, I walked to Marathon and found a couple of fish houses but with no money and no contacts down here I still couldn't get anyone to front me on a start up boat and start fishing for a fish house.
I had been down here about 10 days by this time and I was just sleeping where I could and eating what I could find. I didn't think it would last long and I would be fishing.
Finally I walked up here. Again, I looked for fish houses and boats and again there was nothing for me. So, I was just really disappointed and a little scared and I started figuring out a way to get back up the East Coast where I came from. I planned to leave the next day.
I was sitting on the Keys Taxi bench in front of this shopping center. There weren't any benches around the shopping center at that time. Ted's Taxi bench was in front of CVS that was Eckerds back then. That was 18 years ago.
I sat on that bench all night and watched cats, some with little tiny kittens, foraging all around the shopping center for whatever they could find to eat. I got up and started going through the dumpsters and trash cans to find what I could for them and I fed them. I still remember how they all gathered around me that night, with their eyes shining in the darkness, looking up at me, so thankful. I had been pretty much alone for days and now I wasn't.
I don't remember why I didn't just start walking north the next day. I just remember that a day or two later these two ladies came out of the restaurant at the shopping center one night and I was sitting in the parking lot and the cats had gathered around me and one of the ladies said, "Oh, look at all those cats and kittens. They look hungry, we should get them some food. I told them if they would give me $5.00 I would go buy the food and feed them. And, that's how it all began.
I've had odd jobs off and on in the early days, but, feeding the cats took so much time, I didn't have time to get a job to feed myself. I never went to the VA because I didn't think they would help me. I had food stamps a time or two, but, again, I didn't have time to mess with that because it took all my time to feed the cats. It's really big job. People don't understand. You have to have different groups of cats at different places at different times or the coons would destroy everything.
At first I slept in the ditch at night, right across the highway there. It always had a little water under it and if I slept under the water some, the mosquitoes weren't quite so bad. But, one night, I heard the mosquito plane overhead and it sounded like semi trucks were about to run over me in the ditch. I didn't know it was a plane at the time. The next day I moved under the bridge. 18 years ago.
I remember people would bring their kids to the parking lot at night to catch a kitten for them. The cats have always been here. Back then the mangroves were still full of water so the raccoons didn't attack me and the cats like they do now. They had plenty of food in the mangroves, shrimp, fish, lobster and such.
I know a lot of people think I'm crazy to live under a bridge and feed all those cats. I know they think I'm a bum. I'm not a bum, I work over 100 hours a week feeding close to 100 cats. It's a huge job, a huge commitment. Most people my age couldn't do it. I have to haul all that food and water and it's heavy.
I have to barricade myself off under the bridge to sleep for a few hours. If I don't the coons take everything from me. When I feed the cats I have to give them something off to the side to the raccoons so the cats can eat or the coons would run them off and eat it all..
It's hot under the bridge and noisy and once and for all, NO, I do not like living there. It's just the only place I had. I'd cook under there some time like spaghetti or something, but, I had to eat it right away or it would go bad, plus the smells would drive the raccoons crazy.
I try to imagine how it will be to walk in that trailer at night and lock the door and cook supper and take a shower. I try to imagine sleeping in a real bed with air conditioning and waking up and making a cup of coffee and cooking breakfast before I go to start feeding the cats and all. When I get to my trailer, I'll be done with the cats and all. When I get to the bridge at night, I still have to work a couple of hours just to make it safe to sleep. If I don't bundle everything up and mask the smell and barricade myself off, the raccoons will be all over everything and me while I sleep.
The last couple of nights I have dreamed about it, locking that door, no cats, no raccoons, a bed, safe and all.
As bad as it's been, it's all been worth it. Those cats are always so happy to see me. They are so hungry and when I feed them, they look at me with such happiness. And, no matter how tired I am or how hot it is, it is all worth it. It's all been worth it.
I don't expect you or anyone to really understand, but, it's all worth it. They are God's creatures, just like you and me.
I'll see you tomorrow at 3 to go the VA. Nobody knows how much I thank all you people for everything you are doing."